I took my freshly laundered shirt out of the recyclable laundry bag, fastened my epaulets and wings, donned my flight jacket and bleach-wiped shoes. I gargled and swirled a nasal de-colonizer in my nose. I washed my hands for the thousandth time and slid them into my nitrile disposable gloves, which I had washed after my last flight. I considered whether I would wear my highly prized, hard-to-come-by N95 mask. No, the terminals and plane I would be flying to Kauai would be almost empty. I would save it for a more treacherous situation.
I brought my flight attendants and first officer a little amenity kit that I put together with a hard-to-come-by wipe, an Emergen-C and the nasal sterilizer that’s supposed to last for 12 hours. They were astonished and grateful that someone cared. The company has offered better sick leave provisions and better cleaning for the airplanes but hasn’t done much for the frontline workers, and many are scared. As I briefed my crew, we became a team, bound by this experience of providing essential flying in the face of the “ghostmaker” virus. On our flight were nurses and doctors and a few people who were returning home, including a dear friend who lives on the island. In our cargo hold, there were test kits and protective equipment, the mail and other necessities from the mainland.
By continuing to fly, I’ve made a choice. My family and friends… or isolation. I’m single and in generally good health. I chose to help maintain the precarious link between our cities and islands. It was this 700-mph pipeline that helped spread the virus so quickly, but it was now a lifeline, transporting medical supplies, tests, food and mail. Will this pipeline stop, as well? We don’t know. Uncertainty in this, as in other things, rules the day.
I wanted to see my 90-year-old father yesterday—not in person, just to wave through the window of his study. His wife said absolutely not. She said it would just get him excited and he’d want to come out in the sun and see me. He’s perfectly sane and lucid and totally understands the situation. This was her panic, not his. But it’s an understandable reaction. This virus is lethal. It’s all so global and yet so local. People are in their reptilian-brain fight-or-flight mode. I had made my choice. I’ve become a pariah to those I love. It breaks my heart, but I’ve made my choice.
My layovers now are spent in isolation. Many hotels are closed, so usually, it’s just a few airline crewmembers. Sometimes they offer us a sandwich box or we can order takeout. Operations has suggested that we start bringing our own food, as take-out options are diminishing. One crewmember posted a picture of the empty toilet paper roll holders in his hotel room.
I sat in my hotel room mulling the chaos of the previous couple of weeks. We’re all paying a heavy price, especially those who are sick and dying. And love is still the answer, even as love now looks very lonely while we protect each other from each other. I went back to scrubbing my hands, nose, throat, hair, shoes, uniform, boxes, food.
The next day, we took off into the late afternoon sun. The myriad of duties was mostly completed so I took a moment to look at the rose clouds and peach sun as it was slowly settling into the darkening skies. I looked at my airplane. I was finally in my happy place again. This was my reward and this is what nurtures me in my loneliness. This and the smiles of my team as we speed tests and ventilators through the night. As we set up for our approach into Los Angeles, I was astounded by how sparkling clean the city looked in the early dawn. Twenty million fewer cars on the road, the skies almost empty.
Will this be my last flight? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. Some form of normalcy will return.
And we are resilient.
Gulcin Gilbert is a 17,000-hour pilot with a major airline. She has flown more than 70 aircraft and is also a writer and documentary filmmaker.